13th Sage: Escalation for Everyone?

by Rob Heinsoo

ROB_tileNew 13th Age players often ask whether the escalation die could be applied to all monster and NPC attacks as well as to player character attacks. The short answer is “No” because the math of 13th Age expects that only the PCs (and dragons!) get the escalation die. Adding the escalation die to all monster attacks would make monsters far more deadly and would eliminate our game’s dramatic curve, in which battles start out stacked against the heroes but tip in their favor as they dig in and fight.

But dragons are already an exception, along with a couple other lethal monsters in specific situations. Let’s look at a couple other cases in which supplying the monsters with escalation die armaments might improve your game.

Campaign Losses

PCs who flee incur a campaign loss. If that loss led to the empowerment of a particular evil icon, perhaps the forces of that icon would start benefiting from the escalation die until the PCs set things right. Instead of the brute force tactic of giving these particular enemies the escalation die as an attack bonus for all attacks, I’d probably spring it as a surprise when the escalation die becomes even.

Adding the escalation die when it is even to attacks by monsters associated with the Lich King, or the Orc Lord, or whoever, has a few advantages over adding the die to every monster attack roll. First, it comes as a surprise in the middle of battle, and a surprise that is easily explicable if you can somehow tie the enemy’s empowerment to some consequence of the PCs’ campaign loss.  Second, adding the escalation die only when it is even preserves the PCs’ status as something special—they always have momentum and destiny on their side, but now they’re going to be scared because the bad guys are sharing the power. Third, the battle acquires more urgency if the empowerment gets phrased as obvious magical effects that are appearing only when the escalation die is even. The PCs will want to finish the enemy off before there are too many more even rounds. Fourth, adding the escalation die only half+ the time means you’re slightly less likely to brute-force the PCs into another campaign loss! But you can threaten the PCs with the possibility that the enemy icon’s forces will always have the escalation die if they screw up again. . . .

Escalating Apocalypse

If your campaign has moved to the apocalypse side of the timeline, you might start by giving all monsters (or a chosen subset of most-dangerous-foes) the escalation die when the escalation die is 1. At first, monsters’ access to the die ends as soon as it rises to 2. But then they start benefiting until the die moves to 3, and the PCs understand that they need to finish the campaign’s major plots and halt the apocalypse before it escalates further.

Horror Games

If you decided to run a 13th Age horror session, in which all the PCs were more or less meant to die, then giving the monsters the escalation die from the start would be perfect. If I was running such a session/campaign, I’d probably say that the PCs don’t have the escalation die at all . . . . until one of them has died in the battle! To stretch out the horror, a PC death would take the escalation die from the monsters and give it back to the surviving PCs.

If you feel like running one of those kinder-gentler horror games where people get torn up but don’t always necessarily die, then you could flip this switch at the moment a PC falls to 0 hp, you softie.

Named Villains

If a named villain escapes a battle, the next time they surface to fight the PCs, consider giving them the escalation die. They’ve taken the PCs measure. They’re the hero of their own story. They’re a threat to remember.


13th Age answers the question, “What if Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, lead designers of the 3rd and 4th editions of the World’s Oldest RPG, had free rein to make the d20-rolling game they most wanted to play?” Create truly unique characters with rich backgrounds, prepare adventures in minutes, easily build your own custom monsters, and enjoy fast, freewheeling battles full of unexpected twists. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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